Learning to Trust After Betrayal

Dear Neil: I have been married for twenty-two years. One year ago, I had a one month affair, which ended when my husband found out about it. Since then, our lives have turned upside down. I have spent the past year trying to make up for what I have done, but I have been unable to make him see that I deeply regret what happened. We have gone into some of the reasons why it happened, but he finds it difficult to accept and often says my reasons are just “excuses.”

We are now separated, but I want another chance to rebuild the marriage. What can I do?

Drowning In New Zealand

Dear Drowning: Trust is the cornerstone of every relationship we have. It is an unspoken assumption about how we will behave toward—as well as be treated by—others. Because it is unspoken, we assume everyone else operates from the same expectations that we do.

The victims of betrayal are left with a gut-wrenching emptiness and hurt. They don’t feel safe any longer. They feel totally alone, wrapped in a profound despair that their needs have been cast aside by someone they believed cared about their well-being, says Jane Greer in the book How Could You Do This To Me? (Doubleday).

She says that many betrayals are motivated by greed, revenge, fear of another’s anger or fear of what one may personally lose. Betrayals are about trying to gain, trying to get even, or trying to protect one’s self from another. Betrayals may also be motivated by the need to escape blame—or disapproval, or to cover up a mistake.

For many people, the key to forgiveness is hearing the heartfelt apology of the person who wronged them. For an apology to be meaningful, a betrayer cannot gloss over the incident and merely mumble “I’m sorry.” Rather, he/she must account for his/her actions and empathize with how the betrayed person feels. Empathy is vital; it is what allows a betrayer to prove that he/she understands and feels remorseful over the pain and suffering that the partner has gone through.

For an apology to be satisfactory, the betrayer much acknowledge wrongdoing and take responsibility for his/her behavior. This means not making excuses or trying to justify your actions. An apology must also speak to the future; it must be seen as a promise that a similar incident won’t happen again, and must outline the steps the betrayer will take to make sure that it doesn’t. You might, for instance, say to your husband “I’m sorry I betrayed your trust in me. I know that I hurt you, and I deeply regret that. I will never do this again. What would it take for you to let you go of your hurt and to give me—and our marriage—another chance?”

Finally, an apology must be followed by some repair work; that is, a demonstration of better behavior. The betrayer must extend him/herself in some way. It is much easier to trust someone who goes way out of their way to try to earn back your trust.

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